It is very rare that early English literature presents us with a memorable heroine. With the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of others, truly exceptional female characters were few and far between, until women themselves started writing with more frequency during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders presents a heroine who is intelligent, resourceful, and capable.
A Rare Literary Heroine: Moll Flanders
In many ways, Moll Flanders is very much a product of its times. When the book was published in 1722, it was customary for novels to preach moral values to their audiences--which were, of course, primarily women. For example, in Samuel Richardson's Pamela, a young servant girl finds herself pursued by her master. In refusing his sexual advances, she is rewarded by his eventual proposal of marriage. A later example, Susannah Rowson's 1828 novel, Charlotte Temple, demonstrated to young ladies what happens to those who didn't preserve their virtue.
Although Moll is a much more engaging character than the priggish Pamela or the insipid Charlotte, Moll Flanders does not depart much from the moralizing fiction of the era. At almost every new turn of Moll's fate, the heroine takes great care to point out her wrongdoings and failings, and how she could have avoided them. She also makes sure that the reader is aware when she has sacrificed her own comfort by behaving rashly, and how she could have improved her circumstances had she taken a different path. Sometimes Moll's moralizing lasts only a few lines, but more frequently it continues on for paragraphs or even pages, as she drives her point home.
Despite the sermonizing quality of Moll Flanders, however, the heroine's narration paints a character of strength and humanity. Unlike Richardson's character Pamela, Moll has many imperfections. She is so loose with her virtue that she succeeded in shocking many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers. However, whereas Rowson's Charlotte is helpless when she finds herself abandoned, and subsequently dies from the grief of losing her virtue, Moll finds an answer to every predicament she encounters--whether honest or not.
Indeed, one of the most enduring aspects of Moll's character is her human weakness, combined with her determination to survive at all costs. The novel covers some sixty years: from Moll's birth into poverty and her subsequent separation from her mother, to the relative peace and quiet she eventually finds. During this period, her fortunes rise and fall a number of times. She marries five men, some of them while she is still legally married to another, has three separate lovers, and gives birth to nearly a dozen children – all as a result of her scheming to become a gentlewoman and prevent herself from falling into destitution. During the last part of the novel, when Moll is too old to attract the attention of men any longer, she turns to petty theft to survive, and narrowly escapes being executed when she is finally caught.
An Enduring Legacy: Moll Flanders
Yet for all Moll's faults--and, according to society's standards in those days, they are many--the reader cannot help but sympathize with her. Defoe paints a vivid picture of the plight women without wealth faced during those times: dependent on the protection of men, yet often unable to interest a man except with a promise of wealth. We quickly come to understand that Moll has no choice but to scheme and sin in order to survive. We even come to admire her perseverance and intelligence in the face of every new predicament.
When Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, he created a character that was rich in imperfections as well as more admirable attributes--in other words, a character that was true to human nature. Moll's story is both an adventure and a confession, and as such has endeared her to readers spanning four centuries. Indeed, the endurance of Moll Flanders over the years has proven Moll's ability to survive, not just in the pages of the novel, but also in the hearts of her readers.